Thursday, November 02, 2006

Jeff salutes Thomas Filmore

Last month in my salute to Paul Crabaugh I mentioned my adoration of The Best of The Dragon, volume 1. It chock full of gaming goodness from the good ol' days. Most of the collected articles have a real sense of light fun to them, except for all the ones where Gary Gygax uses his Professor Dad voice. But I always found that to be awesome in a totally different way. Every year or two I re-read the the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide, partly for that Gygaxian prose.

But today I really want to talk about "The Play's The Thing...", a nifty little article by Thomas Filmore that originally appeared in The Dragon issue 11. (Old timers might remember #11 for the first appearance of Snits.) As far as I can suss, this little half-page article is Filmore's only published contribution to the hobby. But it had a big impact on me as a kid, as Filmore's article was a primer on the concepts of character personality and background. "The Play's The Thing..." taught me that the combination of race, class, and alignment aren't enough to make a character sheet into an actual character. Most importantly, Filmore gives a great sample background for a PC. Dig it:
Saltair: Lowly dwarf of the Seven Hills who had always been underground for most of his life and is uncomfortable outside. He was a miner in the hills, before that son of an orc Tasp got killed and the blame went to him. To solve his problem, he took to drinking and everytime he is outside he usually hits the stuff hard. He is belligerent, hates almost everything, and just wants enough money to keep him in drink while he looks for the big strike. Then he will head back to the hills and pay off everyone and their brother and live the rest of his life in those hills. Between drinking and gambling, he rapidly loses most of the money he gathers by adventuring.
I have great love for Saltair. The history of the hobby is littered with surly little dwarf fuckers, but Saltair will always have a special place in my heart. In this one paragraph Filmore teaches everything you need to know about writing character backgrounds. Saltair has a reason to go adventuring. He has a reason not to stop (he blows his loot on drink). There's a shiny plot hook dangling for the DM. (Does Tasp have vengeful brothers? Could a dwarvish bounty hunter be on his trail?). The background doesn't include anything that's going to bend or break the DM's campaign world. And most important of all, it's short. Not to beat on anyone else's play preferences, but I don't see the need for a character backstory longer than a few sentences.